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Villegas Views: Why Bother Learning More in Technical Communication?

See on Scoop.itM-learning, E-Learning, and Technical Communications

Danielle M. Villegas‘s insight:

I have a new monthly byline with the STC Notebook blog! Welcome to Villegas Views. Check out this latest entry about continuing education in tech comm.

–techcommgeekmom

See on notebook.stc.org

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A TechCommGeekMom Milestone: A baby blog is now a toddler

WOW!

10KCelebration_041913

I think my little blog just grew up a bit. I not only reached the 10,000 all-time hits mark, but even passed it. For a niche blog that’s 13.5 months old, I think that’s pretty amazing! I’m a proud TechCommGeekMom!

Thank you to every person who’s a regular reader, who just popped in once in a while, or who came only once for a visit. 10,000 all-time hits is a lot! Now, I know of blogs that have definitely had more traffic than me, mostly because they are much more hyper-focused on a particular segment of technical communications, like everything you want to know about a particular type of software, everything you want to know about a particular strategy, or else they’ve been around for a long time, so they’ve built up a following after a while. I do not begrudge these people, as they are my inspiration, and in some ways, they have contributed to this blog too through curated content now and then. TechCommGeekMom wants to be like those blogs as it grows up!

I trust that you enjoy what you read, and that you keep coming back for more. I’d like to think that the variety presented here, mixed with my own eccentric flair, brings about a lot of different perspectives of what technical communications is and what it can be. As I’ve said in the past, this blog started out very small, as a grad school project to build a community via social media, and I chose to work on building my tech comm/e-learning/m-learning community. I’m guessing that perhaps–just perhaps–I may have achieved my goal of creating a TechCommGeekMom community, and yet I hope the family will continue to grow. If you have any suggestions or ideas of things you’d like to see here, or if you’d like to contribute a guest post, please let me know!

Many thanks from the bottom of my heart for helping me reach this milestone! This blog is a labor of love, and it has opened so many doors for me, which I hope continue to open! I truly appreciate the support!

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Instant Mobile Apps? Not quite.

MP900441051Last week, I was in contact with one of my former professors at NJIT‘s MSPTC program. We talked about several things going on, and in the process of the email conversation, she mentioned that she is starting another semester of the PTC 601 (Advanced Professional and Technical Communications) classes, and she asked me a question about mobile, because she wanted to add a new component to an assignment.

I remember doing the assignment well just three years ago. Essentially, the student is given a manual for a fictitious coffeehouse franchise’s espresso machine, and the student has to rewrite the manual into a quick reference guide, preferable something that included visual images that could the learner/user can learn from it or refer to it as needed. Conceptually, it’s an easy enough assignment (or at least it was to me), but creating it with the tools I had at the time proved challenging, even if I did pull it off.

Adding a mobile component to this assignment makes a lot of sense to me. This is a perfect example of what m-learning is, what it looks like, and what it can be! Taking a simple how-to manual and creating a mobile app for it is highly logical, especially in this scenario. I mean, think about it…how often do people whip their smartphones out of their pockets to look up any kind of information, let alone have a how-to app on their phones? So having a special app that could be downloaded and instantly used as a reference guide for that newbie coffee barista would be ideal!

I was happy to hear about this addition to the assignment. The professor knows how enthusiastic I am about promoting mobile solutions, and I was thrilled to hear that she is making an effort to include mobile solutions in the MSPTC curriculum. So, she asked me if I knew any software programs that could convert text into some sort of mobile output. The first thing that came to mind was Adobe’s Technical Communications Suite 4, especially with Framemaker and Robohelp. But, the school doesn’t have a copy of that for students yet (they are working on it), and even with the short trial, there’s a big learning curve for an assignment that would be due fairly quickly.

So, I began to do a little research to help the professor out. There were a few things–a few parameters–that I had to keep in mind as I looked for a tool for her to use. It has to be easy to use for someone who didn’t have too much or negligible programming skills. It has to be free or at the barest minimum of cost. And it had to have an easy ramp-up to have a project done on it in a week or so. I knew, from experience, that people from all walks of life come into this program, with a true mix of web expertise. I remember helping some of my fellow classmates by providing a crash course in HTML, and the quest for the free or cheap web editing software or site where an e-portfolio could be created. So, I understood the parameters well.

The sad thing I discovered was that while there are dozens of places to set up and create free or cheap websites with web editing available that anyone could use to set up a good looking site, the same can’t be said yet for creating mobile sites. There are a few sites that do help a person create a mobile app easily, but it’s not cheap. Or, if it’s cheap, it requires some programming know-how. It was tough. the other thing to keep in mind was whether the mobile app being created was for a “native” app, a “web” app or “hybrid” app. The differences between these is that a native app is saved on the mobile device and can be used offline. The web app is one that is essentially a mini website and needs an internet connection to access the app. A hybrid is…well, you can figure that out. If you’ve ever tried to access an app on your phone, but couldn’t get it to function because you didn’t have wifi or 4G, then that’s a web app. If it only partially worked, but you still needed wifi/4G to connect for part of it, it’s a hybrid. You get the idea. In the end, I gave the professor a few suggestions that I found.

The first was something called Viziapps. I think I had heard of Viziapps because I believe (just off the top of my head) that this was the software being used in an STC class on how to build mobile apps. Viziapps allows individuals to create a mobile app without knowing any or little coding, but they would have to have some idea of information architecture (which is part of the project assignment–understanding what’s important, what’s not, what comes first, content structure, etc.). It’s mostly a visual editor that allows the user to build the apps online, then publish on the web for free, provided the creator has created a web app. If it’s a native or hybrid app, then that has a price. It seems like it might be a viable choice as a tool that would allow for a quicker ramp-up for someone seriously trying to create a mobile app.

Other more creative choices would be using their mobile devices to make something. For example, there is an app called SnapGuide, in which an individual can take photos or video to demonstrate how to do something. Mobile by Conduit might be another possibility, as it’s free, and supposedly has an interface style similar to WordPress.

But then I thought about WordPress,  and I realized that might be another option. TechCommGeekMom is a WordPress website, after all, and it can be read on mobile devices. Basic WordPress accounts are free and fairly easy to use. You can create a “blog” or website on WordPress, and then there’s a setting to create a mobile interface. Here’s a little bit of info about it: http://en.support.wordpress.com/themes/mobile-themes/  It seemed to fit the criteria needed for a mobile app creator/editor, in that it’s free, it has a mobile output (as well as a regular web output), and it provides a primer for content management in the experience.  I thought that if I was still in the class, I’d create several pages on a single WordPress website for different parts of the Guide–similar to the pages and navigation I have here, and then promote the mobile access to the website. It’s not a perfect system, but for quick ramp-up purposes for a fairly small assignment, it seems like it would fit the bill.

I think my former professor appreciated the help, but we both discussed the dilemma that it posed. Why must someone have a programming degree and some cash in order to create a mobile app–whether it be a native, hybrid or web app? Depending on the app, all three formats have their positive and negative aspects to them.  But how does one learn how to use any of these mobile app writer/editor products quickly? There are some great tools out there, I’m not denying that, but for the true beginner or student on a budget who is trying to learn how to create mobile solutions skills as a technical communicator, it’s not that easy. I see a huge business opportunity here (not that I have the time, cash, or enough knowledge to start such a business), but creating a highly user-friendly software program that one’s grandma could create a mobile app for a very low cost would be a fantastic business. It would make even more information accessible to share with others.

It occurred to me later that for the average user, another possibility is another Adobe program that I’ve been using to create and maintain my e-portfolio, called Adobe Muse. It’s a cloud-based app that acts as a very easy UI interface to create websites and mobile apps. I’ve used the website editor, but I haven’t tried the mobile conversion yet there. I believe it’s about $14-15 per month, and you can set up an account at Adobe’s Business Catalyst and create your mobile site that way.  It allows those who have next to no programming skills create something that looks great, but it also allows more advanced users some nice shortcuts to create great sites without having to do all the coding–Muse does it for you.

Perhaps, as mobile solutions become more mature like editing software for desktop interface websites, this mobile app creator problem will go away, and there will be more affordable options. In the meantime, we have to wait or muddle through it all…

If you know of any easy-to-ramp-up mobile app editors, please mention it in the comments below! Share, everybody!

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Another one of those 2012 Tech Comm Years in Review? But it’s MINE…

MP900309664It’s December 31st, 2012, and the end of another long year has come. This is the time of year when everyone starts to see the year in review posts and articles all over every media source imaginable. I’m no different– I’ve already posted a Top Ten Posts of 2012 for TechCommGeekMom.  But this post is more about my reflection of the year–and what a year it’s been!

This is not to say that everything has been coming up roses for me this year. Upon reflection, there were a lot of good things that happened over the past year that were never expected and were really great. There were also things that were definitely not so great.

The not as great things included problems that my son was having at school that greatly affected his behavior, me getting pneumonia for a month last winter, losing my full-time job, and being laid off my part-time job. Just those things alone could easily make it a bad year, especially if you knew some of the details of the school problems my son was having.

But there were so many things that outweigh those negatives that for once, I can actually say that 2012 was a pretty good year for me. The first big thing was that I graduated from NJIT with my MSPTC. That was the result of two and a half years of blood, sweat and tears–sometimes literally–to get it finished. It was so much a part of what I did for a while that I actually miss it. The fact that I actually graduated, with honors no less, is surreal. I can’t believe that it’s all finished and done, when I feel like I should still be taking a class or doing something more, like writing up another paper.  I was very fortunate to have made several friends in the program, even through this virtual program, and make connections that I think will benefit me for life. The knowledge I gained from the program will also serve me for life as well, I am sure.  I know that NJIT was proud enough of my recent accomplishments enough to feature me as one of its “poster girls” for the Continuing Education program by featuring me in a promotional video for the school. I’m honored and still surprised that they picked me, but appreciate the nod of approval nonetheless.

The other part of what made this year exceptional was this blog. What began as a combination of a class assignment and something to do on a whim has taken on a life of its own. I don’t think anyone, especially me, would have expected anyone to be reading it with the gathering that I’ve collected over the past year. Social media has truly been key to many of the successes I’ve had this year.  I’m glad that I started to become more involved professionally with Twitter and Facebook especially, in order to connect with other technical communicators. Not only did I seek to learn from other technical communicators in the past year, but I used social media as a means of marketing this blog so that my voice could be heard amongst the many great voices out there. The amazing thing to me is that my voice was heard.

Now, I did have some unexpected help along the way. As I’ve explained in the past, it was an early post in which I vented my frustrations about learning tech comm software that someone heard me very loud and clear.  It was someone at Adobe, who not only heard me, but also wanted to help me.  That person was Parth Mukherjee.  It was very early in our contact that he wanted to help, and offered me a webinar. What, me? A webinar for someone just out of grad school? Yes, crazy as it sounded, that what he offered me and I took it. I’m glad I did. Along the way, I got to know Saibal Bhattacharjee, Maxwell Hoffman, Ankur Jain, and Tom Aldous at Adobe as well, and they constantly provided me with more opportunities and support throughout the year–many more than what are listed here. The biggest highlights of this relationship for me were doing the webinar in June that gained me initial greater exposure, and when I was invited to be one of Adobe’s guests at their “Adobe Day” pre-conference event at Lavacon. For a gal who is still new to the field to be invited to “run with the big boys and girls” was a thrill! I learned so much at the Adobe Day conference, and I had a chance to meet and get to know some of the people that I had not only gotten to know through social media, but people I revered and respect in the field.  There have been so many good things that happened to me thanks to Adobe, and I don’t think I can ever thank them enough. As I’ve also said many times before, I was a big fan of Adobe’s before the connection with Adobe’s Tech Comm team, but now they’ve allowed me to become truly loyal to the company with everything they’ve done for me personally that they didn’t have to do. Thank you so much!

I also had an opportunity this year to express my technical communications knowledge in a different way–I was able to teach a virtual class in business and technical writing to Microsoft Korea through the World Learning Company. It was a unique opportunity to present information not only so the students could understand the information, but I truly wanted my students to learn the information so they could use it more often in their everyday business communications. I got great feedback from the end-of-class surveys as well as directly from the students themselves that I made it easier to understand these complicated language nuances, especially since English was a second language for nine of the ten students I had! It was a great opportunity to flex my knowledge muscles to help other people become better writers, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

A big part of this year was all the people I met who helped me along the way. In addition to those at Adobe and NJIT, I met SO many individuals along the way that helped me through this first year of being an “official” technical communicator. I’m sure I’ll be missing someone from this list of tech comm and e-learning professionals, as there were so many, but off the top of my head, they include RJ Jacquez, Mayra Aixa Villar, Miriam Lottner, Toby Price, Barrie Byron, Jamie Gillenwater, Sharon Burton,  Christie Fidura, Shay Shaked, Marcia Riefer Johnston, Colum McAndrew, Renaldo Lawrence, Joe Ganci, Sarah O’Keefe, Val Swisher, Jackie Gerstein, Anita Horsley, Scott Abel, Chad Udell, Alyssa Fox, and Karen Mahon. Each person here, and many others whom I met through social media or in person, contributed to my knowledge base and growth not only as a technical communicator and e-learning specialist, but also as a person. I thank each and every one of you for your support in taking me under your wing, but also for your friendship.

I also want to thank Gary Woodill, who is one of the m-learning gods in my eyes, for retweeting my tweet promoting my Whitepaper, thus giving it his understated blessing. That was a big deal to me for you to acknowledge it and deem it worthy of retweeting the link.  Also many thanks to TechWhirl, especially Craig Cardimon, for promoting two of my blog posts in recent editions of the “Tech Writer This Week” feature on TechWhirl.com. For me, that was a huge indication that I have “arrived” in tech comm.

So, as you can see, 2012 was actually a very good year for me. Sure, I didn’t have a full-time job, and I had illness and issues that were beyond my control at home, but for me, this has ended up being one of the best years that I’ve had in a long time. My first full year of being a technical communicator hasn’t been without some bumps along the way, but through this blog, my school connections, and all the new social media connections I’ve made in the past year, I wouldn’t change a thing. What a whirlwind for a “newbie”! I can only hope that I will continue to have the support of all these wonderful people, and be able to truly practice what I’ve learned over the past year in my new adventures as a Web Publisher for BASF in 2013.

This was the year of building, and I’ve gained a fantastic foundation. Now is the time to continue to grow and move onwards and upwards! I’m anxious about 2013, but having this strong foundation, I have a feeling that it’s got the potential to be another great year.

What are my resolutions for 2013? Well, I don’t know about resolutions, but I know that some of the things that I hope to achieve, other than a firm establishment in the tech comm field, is to go to the STC Summit in May (I hope), and maybe some other conference as well, if I can afford it. I want to meet so many more people in tech comm, and absorb the  information given by the best and brightest in the field. This year, I was the new kid on the block, and in 2013, I want to be part of the next generation of technical communicators helping to take the field further.

Thank you to everyone reading this, and have an incredibly Happy New Year!

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Being a specialist or a generalist? Which is better for a technical communicator?

I feel like I’ve stepped into quite the conundrum by entering the technical communications field. As I continue to search for full-time work, a problem that I seem to find almost everywhere I go is that technical writing jobs in my area seem to require that one be a specialist in their field, or do very, VERY specific types of work. Both before and after my technical communications studies, I had always been taught that with few career exceptions, being a generalist was more often a desired skill set, simply because I couldn’t get stuck in one specific direction and find little to no work. Having a broad range of skills and abilities made one more marketable, flexible, and thus desirable as an employee. I know the last place that I consulted for full-time appreciated that generalist ability of mine, because I ended up being the go-to person for web editing, web design, and general graphics design. There were those who had the title of “web publisher” but didn’t even know basic HTML, and I actually did.

However, I’m finding that as much as I did my best in both my career and my graduate studies to study a broad range of subjects, including social media, e-learning design, content management strategy, UI strategy, and technical writing and editing, to name a few, I end up as a Jack of all trades, but master of none. However, it seems that because I don’t have specifically five years of medical or proposal writing background in XYZ software, I’m useless. I was recently criticized for having an “unfocused” resume because it was so broad. When asked what specialization I wanted to follow, I listed all the subjects I mentioned above and then some others. I feel I have the skills to start out in any of those fields if someone gave me a break to go in any of those specific directions.

One of the things that stuck out in my mind from Adobe Day at Lavacon last month was commentary by the panel at the end of the morning, in which the group said that one of the issues right now in tech comm is that there are too many tech comm specialists instead of tech comm generalists. When I heard that, it was music to my ears, and I felt vindicated for taking the approach I had with my career! I’ve already taken steps–specifically getting a Master’s degree in Professional and Technical Communication–to provide myself with an education on understanding all the available possibilities in the technical communications field, and be able to adapt to it. However, one of the other challenges listed in the panel talk was the general resistance to progressive change. I fear that the resistance to change is far more widespread than anticipated, based on my own experiences. Every job listing and every recruiter I talk to seems to want to pigeonhole me into one specialty, and I don’t want to do that. The reason I went to graduate school was to allow me to gain opportunities beyond my knowledge of content management alone, and allow me to flex my editing, writing, design and e-learning muscles some more.

Perhaps because I’m a “newbie,” I don’t understand this strict adherence to being a specialist in only one kind of tech comm. Becoming a specialist is a double-edged sword. On one side, being able to work in a niche field makes your skills more desirable for that niche. However, on the other side, it limits the kind of work one can do if there are layoffs or one finds him/herself out of work.

Since I’ve been looking for full-time work for almost a year now, I talked to my husband recently about this idea, and questioned whether I should commit more to one particular area of technical communication than another. While I’ve done a lot of content management work, I find it constraining when I want to be able to edit what I see as just plain BAD writing, and I feel limited to not flex my brain muscles on all the things I’ve learned in grad school in the last two years. I’ve tried to immerse myself in the tech comm world and the e-learning world to varying degrees, but again, I find myself as a generalist since I don’t have any job to help me hone my professional focus as of yet. Even so, I wondered if I should just resign myself, and just try to figure out what specialty I should focus on, perhaps in the hopes of increasing my job prospects. After voicing this concern, my husband vehemently disagreed, feeling that it was better just to continue to be able to look at a little bit of everything and do a little bit of everything, as it broadened prospects by giving me multiple directions to follow.

It makes me wonder how other graduates–whether they are from undergraduate or graduate school–find a job at all. How is someone supposed to be able to do a technical communications job with little to no experience? How the heck can they become specialists without first being generalists given a direction from their first jobs? I know I have the flexibility and know-how to go into many jobs, but it’s autobots that read my resume instead of people more often than not, and autobots don’t understand the value of what I can do and my ability to learn on the spot. I’m sure I’m not the only one in this rut, and yet there doesn’t seem to be any flexibility on the part of employers. There are plenty of us who are more than willing to be dedicated employees with a strong skill set foundation, and we aren’t given a chance.

So, what is better? Being a specialist or a generalist? Write your opinion in the comments below.

For me, I’m still torn, and my problem is that if I do need to be a specialist, I don’t know what direction to follow, because I like so many aspects of tech comm. Should I find work as a full-time blogger, pursue my desire to be an instructional designer, go back to content publishing and management, become a technical evangelist, become a teacher or trainer…or what?

(If you know of any telecommuting/remote jobs or jobs in the Central NJ area along these lines, let me know!)